#PoliceFreeSchools in Springfield, MA

In Boston, school policing understandably gets a lot of attention- students, for example, have been deported for fabricated offenses and the district’s proposed new policy doesn’t appear to protect students from ICE. Though it gets less attention, things are also bad in Springfield, where the struggling district pays over $1 million for armed school resource officers to patrol highly segregated schools. It’s just a different kind of bad. 

Students protest armed school resource officers at Commerce High School in Springfield, MA (Source: MassLive)

So, I was thrilled recently when I read about a youth-led effort to organize for #PoliceFreeSchools in Springfield. Before I get to that, a few (less inspiring) details about Springfield Public Schools:

  • The district serves about 25K students in 61 schools. It’s majority Latinx (67%) and low-income (78%) – more demo info here
  • In the 2015-16 school year, 11 SPS schools were organized into the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership, a board of 4 state appointees and 3 district appointees that functions as a half-step towards state takeover where the state and district collaborate in oversight of the empowerment zone schools. There were 12 schools in the zone last year, and, in 2020-21, it’ll expand to 16
  • In the market-style of school reform, zone schools have more fiscal autonomy than traditional SPS schools, especially when it comes to curriculum and hiring. Unsurprisingly, market-oriented state leadership holds up the zone as a model for state policy
  • Both SPS as a whole and the empowerment zone are highly segregated – nearly half (29) of all district schools (61) are “intensely segregated” (>90% students of color). And, of the 10 zone schools with publicly available data, 8 were intensely segregated last year. 
  • This detailed ACLU report from 2012 has lots of info about how police have been used in Springfield schools, illustrating a culture of aggressive policing that spans decades (so, the entire K-12 career for some students). 

Although this post is about policing, a quick detour into other ways that racial discrimination shapes student experiences in Springfield. Because it’s all connected. As is common across the country, for example, schools in Springfield have cut theatre, art, even history and science (in some schools) to make room for an intense focus on tested subjects. One school even used this absurd teacher “professional development” program where the classroom teacher wears an earpiece and a “master teacher” whispers key phrases in the teacher’s ear from the back of the room. If that wasn’t sickening enough, the promo material for this program compares teachers to Tom Brady, who, likewise, takes instruction in an earpiece from coaches on the sidelines. 

Like aggressive school policing, these kinds of things happen rarely, if ever, in schools that predominantly serve white students. And, also like aggressive school policing, these kinds of things are oriented towards control of Black and Brown bodies and futures. Recent coverage of the student protests has raised public attention to the connection between policing and other kinds of dehumanizing policies. Student protesters want to see this reversed- they’re urging the district to defund school police and reallocate funds to arts programs and school-based mental health supports.

Most notably, coverage has focused on two high-profile incidents of aggressive force against students. In one, a school resource officer was recorded slamming a student into a wall, allegedly because the student “had made a rude comment to him.” Investigators later determined that the officer filed a false report against the student, and the officer was charged with assault. Charges were filed against an officer at another school, an empowerment zone school, after a similar video was recorded on school surveillance cameras. These incidents are obviously troubling, and they deserve a lot of attention. They also shouldn’t distract from the stuff that can’t be caught on video- the daily threat of being a Black of Brown student, trying to learn in a school with an armed agent of the state. Echoing concerns of student activists in other states, this student quote sums it up:

“It made me very uncomfortable seeing a police officer standing there with his hand on his gun, judging everything I do. I don’t like being in a space where I may get arrested if I make one bad move or a cop had a bad day.”

I’ve visited Springfield schools often for various research projects, which included doing focus group interviews with students. I heard similar statements in those conversations, and it cut straight through me every time. Understandably, students’ experiences with police in schools affects their interactions with police outside of schools, as in the tragic story of Antwon Rose and so many others.

OK, so now to the hopeful stuff: the student protests. Organized by Pioneer Valley Youth Voices United, about 200 students marched to Springfield city hall last month to demand an end to the city’s MOU with school police. Here’s a video of the march, which includes student speeches at the beginning and end, as in the picture above. 

Later in June, with over 100 others, I sat in on a virtual town hall that organizers held with the city’s mayor and school superintendent. It was, frankly, one of the most invigorating things I’ve been a part of in a while. Not only did students ask pointed questions to city leaders, they did not tolerate evasion. A few moments into the conversation, it was clear that the students had to approach the conversation this way. City leaders seemed aggrieved to have to defend their policy (to the students they serve) and their rationale was transparently weak. 

Here’s the full video– there’s a fascinating exchange that starts around the 28:35 min mark, when Dahve, a student organizer, asks for evidence that school police officers are keeping students safe. The mayor’s response is a string of nonsense that includes:

  • Saying that “knock on wood” Springfield hasn’t had a mass shooting incident. (School police don’t prevent mass shootings.)
  • Claiming that school police are not used for school discipline. (They are.)
  • Arguing that “achievement scores have gone up” along with graduation rates. (As if any academic gains can be attributed to school police! There isn’t even a link for this because it’s so absurd.)

Later (about 37min), students ask the mayor if he’d consider phasing out armed school police and, over three years, replacing them with unarmed security personnel. His verbatim response: “No, the proof’s in the pudding. You want a simple answer, you got a simple answer: No.” It was an angry white man, responding aggressively to Black youth who simply want to go to school without fear of being shot. 

So, what can be done? From the many helpful resources out there, here’s a short list of readings, action items, etc: 

In Massachusetts, the senate recently passed a criminal justice bill (SB 2800 – full text) that would change state law that actually requires schools to have police officers, instead leaving it up to the superintendent’s discretion. The House recently voted on their version of the bill, and each version is now in conference committee. If you’re reading from Springfield, you can contact your House rep to urge that the SRO provision is retained in whatever bill emerges from committee. This is necessary first step. As we see in Springfield, though, change won’t be possible without local action to pressure local leaders, like that demonstrated by the Springfield youth organizers. Anyone with connections to Springfield Public Schools or an interest in this topic should follow the Pioneer Valley Project on social media and amplify where you can.

The Pitt piece linked above was written by Leigh Patel Stevens, who was influential in my thinking about race and schooling when I was lucky enough to take a few classes with her in grad school. As in much of her other work, she invites us to imagine new possibilities for liberatory education, calling this moment an “opening and transformation in how schools and society operate” and “can act from a place of plenitude rather than enclosure and austerity.” Students like those in Springfield are leading the way towards this transformation. They’re brave in the face of frustrating, nonsensical barriers. And, really, they’re not asking for much.

2 thoughts on “#PoliceFreeSchools in Springfield, MA

  1. Pingback: “Safety and Security” in Boston Schools: A History of Police and Repression, Part 1 | School Diversity Notebook

  2. Pingback: “Safety and Security” in Boston Schools: A History of Police and Repression, Part 3 | School Diversity Notebook

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